Say Nice Things About Detroit (2 page)

BOOK: Say Nice Things About Detroit
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Carolyn was home, but this wasn't really home. Her mother had sold their house when Carolyn's father died and moved to this townhome, where she paid a monthly fee and someone else did the maintenance and groundskeeping, chores which had once been the province of Carolyn's father, Arthur. He was English by birth, trained at Johns Hopkins, an immigrant like her mother, but also different. Perhaps being English made him as forbidden as Dirk's father. It was hard to think of your mother in rebellion, but she'd left Germany, come to America, married a black man, then an Englishman. Something must have been going on.

• • •

the kitchen a little after ten; she'd gone to bed the night before at nine. Carolyn watched as she heaped two teaspoons of sugar into a demitasse of coffee, then added cream. Real cream. Old World all the way. She waited for her mother to sit, exchanged a couple of pleasantries, and then asked, “Mom, you came all the way from Germany—why did you pick Detroit?”

“Back then,” her mother said, “Detroit was a very prosperous place. One of the most prosperous in the world.”


“Sure. Besides, I was nineteen. I had a friend I met in New York, Trudy Schembler, also German. She said there was plenty of money in Detroit. Lots of Germans also. So we came. I didn't like New York. I came from a small town. New York was . . . pfft. Crazy. Too many people.”

“And you thought Detroit was a small town?” Carolyn asked.

“What did I know?”

Carolyn walked to the counter and poured herself more coffee.

“How old are you now? Forty-seven?” her mother asked.

“Thanks, Mom. Forty-two.”

“You look good. You've taken care of yourself. How's my grandson?”

“Pretty full of himself, actually.”

“Why don't you bring him to visit me?”

“Mom, why don't you come to us? I have a job. Marty has a job. Kevin's in school. We're three and you're—” She stopped herself.
Oh, God,
she thought. She hadn't seen Dirk and Natalie in over a year, and now she would never see them. She looked at her mother, who was carefully sipping her coffee, her blond hair (dyed now) helter-skelter on her head.
You're alone,
Carolyn thought, but she didn't say it, and that was okay, because her mother was always happy with a little silence. She thought of Kevin and the impossibility of losing him, the horror of losing a child; her mother had lost two and there were simply no words for that. Silence would have to do.

• • •

taken place two days before, Catholic per her mother's wishes. When Carolyn tried to count the times she'd been to church, other than for weddings and funerals, she couldn't get to five. At the cemetery the bodies were buried next to each other, beside Arthur. Their mother's plot was there, too. Very German, Carolyn thought, to have a plan like that right to the end.

The funeral took place on a warm day, the leaves on the beech and several oaks full and fluttering. Carolyn stood by her mother. It seemed that almost half the crowd was dark-suited men, FBI agents, more men than she would have guessed her brother knew, though she didn't know Dirk that well; they didn't have the same father and had never even lived in the same house, didn't come from the same neighborhood, had only this odd connection of German blood. She reached over and touched her mother's arm.

At the end of the service she and her mother threw dirt on the graves. Carolyn felt the finality of it then. The priest held her as she sobbed. It had always been up to her to be the stoic one, the responsible one, though what she'd done was to run as far away from her family as she could get. Now Dirk and Natalie were dead. It felt as if she'd had some hand in it, as if by her absence she had allowed it to happen.

• • •

almost eleven, then called Marty on his cell, knowing he'd be driving Kevin to camp. It was only eight there, probably cooler than a summer day in Michigan, though it would stay that same lovely temperature for months. It never really got cold. If there was anything she missed about Detroit it was the fall, the special smell the air got as the leaves came alight, then fell. “Football weather,” it was called, a phrase that had no meaning in southern California.

“Hey,” Marty said. “How's it going?”

“Great,” she said. Marty and Kevin had flown back home for work and camp the day after the funeral. Carolyn planned to stay on—“Ten days or so,” she told Marty—to see her mother through.

“It couldn't even be good,” Marty said. He'd warned her she wouldn't make the week and a half, but then again, he'd never much liked her mother, a sentiment that was returned. “He lacks a deep soul,” her mother had warned her before the marriage, but Carolyn had ignored this, as she did all her mother's warnings.

She asked to talk to Kevin.

“Hey, Mom,” the boy said. She was reminded of the Bluetooth, that the boy could hear everything.

“How's camp?”


“Doing anything special?” She waited for the reply, but the call had been dropped. This was how it was in the cell age; so many conversations ended without a goodbye.

• • •

kitchen, her mother was still sitting at the table in her bathrobe, making no attempt to get up or even read the paper. Carolyn asked her if she wanted to go for a drive.

“No, but you go. I'll be fine.”

“It would do you good to get out,” Carolyn said.

“I don't think so.”

Carolyn considered whether to counter this challenge and decided against it. She could pretend her mother was always right until she went home to California.

The day was bleached white, a high, bright cloud layer seeming to make everything fuzzy. The rental car was a Mazda—unfathomable in the old days, a rental agency in Detroit renting a Japanese model—and she drove it down Telegraph. Her knowledge of the area had faded; she'd left at eighteen for good. She decided to go to Hancock Street to see the place where her brother and sister died. She thought she might be able to move on better if she could see the spot. She hadn't seen Natalie in almost two years, not since she and Marty had bought Natalie a plane ticket to L.A. On that trip they'd promised to stay in better touch, but it hadn't happened. Carolyn should have made more effort, and now she wouldn't get the chance.

She crossed Maple, past the old Machus Red Fox, a different restaurant now but still the same building, a kind of memorial to Jimmy Hoffa. His disappearance was part of her history, another big milestone along the route of Detroit's demise. Close to 12 Mile she exited Telegraph to the right—the car dealers were still here, though now you could buy a Nissan or Toyota, Saab or Volvo, and no one would shout at you or take a sledgehammer to the vehicle while you waited at a red light—and then followed the entrance ramp, first right and then left as the road curved south and east into the city. She felt conscious of her breathing, deep and a little rapid, as she was driving seventy-two in the right-hand lane, past the retaining walls, shredded tires, and trash, a splintered crib, on the shoulder. The seat beside her held a copy of the police report and a MapQuest printout. She flicked down the automatic door locks and drove on.

She took the Lodge too far, then, realizing it, exited by the river, turning on a street called Randolph, then Gratiot. Soon she was skirting around the new Ford Field and Comerica Park (no more Tiger Stadium in Detroit). She headed back west to Woodward, then Hancock, the street on the report. Not much beauty here, but nothing sinister, just old and empty buildings under the drab sky, a sheet of newspaper cartwheeling down the street, crabgrass growing out of the sidewalks, not a person on them, an empty city street on a completely normal day.

She approached Cass and the parking lot near the murder spot. Police lights flashed red and blue behind her. She eased the car to the right with two hands on the wheel, ten o'clock and two o'clock, just as she'd been taught as a teenager. The cruiser pulled in behind her.

The cop and his partner sat in their car a long time; she waited, wondering what she'd done wrong. She hadn't been speeding; she was sure of that. She had her license, assumed the registration and proof of insurance were in the glovebox. A second police car pulled up. The first policeman got out, walked to her window, and asked for her license, registration, and proof of insurance.

He studied the California license for a long time.

“What are you doing here?” he asked finally. He was a large, middle-aged man with a bit of a paunch, evident as he stood at her window. His skin was the deep, rich color of stained maple.

“I'm trying to get to the corner of Hancock and Cass,” she said.

The cop looked to his left. Her destination was less than half a block away. “Why?”

“My brother and sister died there,” she said.

“You're saying that the FBI agent, Burton, was your brother?”

“Same mother,” she explained. It always needed expla-

He waved the other cop car away, then handed her back her license and the other paperwork, which the rental car company had packed up in a plastic zip-lock baggie.

“Drive up to Cass,” he told her. “Turn right, put your car in the lot. We'll stay with you. I don't want you out here alone.”

The cop's partner was another black man, older, his hair mixed with gray, frosty curls. She liked these men immediately. They meant to protect her.

“It's the middle of the day,” she said.

“You got the art museum just a couple blocks north, Wayne State's nearby, but you shouldn't come down here alone. Not a woman, especially not a blond woman.”

“You're asking for trouble,” the older cop said. “Even if it ain't bad trouble.”

Soon she was standing with the two men at the corner.

“How did this happen?” she asked.

“I wouldn't park here at night,” the older cop said. “No way.”

“He was waiting for someone,” said the other.

“And vice versa, it looks like.”

A thought came to her. “Why did you pull me over?” she asked.

“You looked lost.”

“What's that mean?”

“A white woman in a rental car driving slow around here? That's lost.”

“Maybe looking for the art museum,” said the older cop.

A moment passed, as if to accentuate the basic insincerity of what they were saying.

“You thought I was here to score,” Carolyn said. “You racial-profiled me.”

“Whoa, ma'am,” said the younger cop. “None a that. You looked lost. We were just trying to help.” He paused. “Protect and serve. That's what this is all about, ma'am.”

“Would you have stopped a black woman here?”

“A black woman would have been speeding,” he said.


divulged that the victims were brother and sister, and for a couple days the story moved the mayor's troubles below the fold. David paced back and forth in front of his kitchen counter, looking at the phone number. He wanted to have an idea what to say; he was bad at speaking on the fly. There was a reason he hadn't tried to be a litigator. He considered himself especially bad on the phone and often practiced how he thought the conversation might go.
Mrs. Evans, this is David Halpert calling. I read about Dirk and Natalie in the papers. I am so sorry. It's horrible.

He felt an obligation to make the call, but he dreaded it. It was the sorrow. He'd had enough with sorrow. He could let his life become an exercise in it—his son, his marriage, his mother, eventually his father, his city—or he could make it otherwise. Cory was dead four years now. Simply to choose to live differently made as much sense as anything.

He picked up the phone and dialed the Evanses, seven digits. He got an error message. The phone company wanted him to use the new area code.

A woman answered.

“Is this Mrs. Evans?”

“Put me on your do-not-call list,” she said.

“Mrs. Evans, it's David Halpert calling.”

A pause. “David? Natalie's friend?”

“Yes. I happen to be in town and, well, I've seen the papers and so I'm calling to say I'm very, very sorry. I don't—”

“Thank you, David,” she said, saving him. “How are you doing?”

“I'm fine.”

“And your parents?”

“My dad is good. My mom, she's having some medical issues.”

“You give them my best.”

“I will,” he said.

“Would you like to speak to Carolyn?” she asked.

“Why, yes, sure,” he said, for no other reason than he didn't want to say no to Mrs. Evans, nor did he want to talk to her any longer. Carolyn? He'd last seen her when she was sixteen. What would he say to her?


“Hi, Carolyn.”

“Do you actually live here?”

They spent several minutes catching up. She lived in Los Angeles with her husband and son.

“I think I'd heard you were in Arizona, right?”

“Denver. But I'm staying a few months, to help my dad with my mom. She's losing it. Some kind of dementia.”

“That's too bad.”

“I'm sorry about Natalie. And Dirk. God, I don't know what to say.”

“You've said it,” she answered. A long, uncomfortable silence followed before Carolyn spoke again. “My sister still talked about you every once in a while.”

“I'm surprised to hear that,” he said.

“Well, you shouldn't be. I don't think she ever got over the lack of that goodbye.”

“I don't know that I did, either,” he said. Natalie's parents had taken her off to school early. Natalie had called, but David didn't get the message, so that when he showed up to say goodbye, only Carolyn was left at the house. It was eerie talking to her now; she sounded uncannily like her older sister. They both had a way of swallowing the last word of a sentence, a habit that, intentional or not, meant that you had to listen carefully to the very end.

BOOK: Say Nice Things About Detroit
3.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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